This is an excerpt of an upcoming post, “Did Your Parent Crave Your Attention? You Might Suffer From Emotional Incest.”. This post introduces the definitions of emotional incest and covert incest, 31 signs of emotional incest, and a resource for safe, secular (i.e., not religious) licensed therapists and mental health professionals.

(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)

As a child, I was a victim of emotional incest by my now-no-longer-practicing Amish birth father and covert incest by both birth parents. I’ve spent over a decade of intense therapy for that—as well as repeat sexual assault by two of my nonpracticing Amish uncles, Harvey Bell in Montana and Enos Bontrager in Wisconsin—but I didn’t seek professional help until I was in my late 20s. I hope that this post and others I write will help you break through the barriers of shame if you, too, were taught by your religion of origin that something is wrong with you if you have mental health needs.

Definitions of Covert Incest and Emotional Incest

According to the American Psychological Association, emotional incest is . . .

. . . “a form of child sexual abuse consisting of nonphysical sexualized interactions between a parent figure and a child. Emotional incest may involve the caregiver commenting on the child’s sexual attractiveness, drawing attention to the caregiver’s own arousal to the child or the size or shape of the child’s secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., breasts, pubic hair), or implying that the child is sexually active (e.g., calling the child a slut). Also called covert incest.”

Covert incest, according to the American Psychological Association, is “a form of emotional abuse in which a parent turns to his or her child as a surrogate partner, seeking from the child the emotional support that would more appropriately be provided by the person’s spouse or another adult.”

If emotional incest can also be called covert incest, why is there a separate definition for covert incest and one that doesn’t include their (the APA’s) definition of emotional incest?

The way I read it, the APA is trying to distinguish between nonphysical sexualized versus nonphysical nonsexualized emotional interactions. From that point of view, emotional incest shouldn’t be called covert incest.

To make things even more confusing, emotional incest is also called “spousification“, “enmeshment“, or “enmeshed parent-child relationship, all terms that could also be called “covert incest” depending on the specific scenario taking place.

Super exhausting! But my point in spelling all of this out is so you’re aware of the interchangeability of these terms and can determine whether a therapist you’re considering going to actually knows what they’re talking about.

31 Signs of Emotional Incest

In The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life, authors Dr. Patricia Love and Jo Robinson list signs of emotional incest in children, teens, and adults:

For children and teens, signs include:

  • Feelings of guilt or unworthiness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling responsible for a parent’s feelings
  • Difficulty making and sustaining friendships
  • Isolation from others
  • Conflict or strain with siblings and/or the other parent
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Perfectionism

In addition to the above, signs in adults include:

  • Being a people-pleaser
  • Lack of self-identity
  • Fear of rejection
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
  • Fear of getting close to others
  • Putting the needs of others before one’s own
  • A strong desire to succeed
  • Finding a partner that is similar to one’s parent
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug or alcohol addiction
  • Sexual dysfunction issues

Dr. Love is a licensed professional counselor and former professor, but as explained in the upcoming post, “Did Your Parent Crave Your Attention? You Might Suffer From Emotional Incest.”, the mental health field is plagued with religiously biased therapists who end up harming clients because of said bias. One of the Amazon reviews for this book is definitely a red flag:

“The only thing I did not like about the book was it talked about ways to “make amends” in the back. Yes, with some parents it is possible to form a new healthy relationship, but some people you just can’t reach. I don’t know if she mentions the no contact option in the back of the book but for some children they will end up having to cut ties completely with said person because not all people are capable of respecting your boundaries.”

This reviewer is so spot on!

Any therapist who suggests you should or urges you to make amends with your abusive parents is re-victimizing you.

Parents/caregivers need to be held accountable for their actions and compensate their child victim for losses suffered as a result of said parent/caregiver’s crime, not the other way around. It is not the now-adult child’s responsibility to coddle the parent—a repeat of what they likely were forced to do as a child—by initiating making amends, forgiving and forgetting, and otherwise letting the “helpless” parent off the hook.

In contrast, the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Dr. Lindsay Gibson, a licensed clinical psychologist, appears to be firmly on the side of the child and for calling out parent/caregiver’s abuse. Gibson was also an Assistant Adjunct Professor for the College of William and Mary and Old Dominion University, teaching doctoral student classes in Clinical Psychology.

Here are some signs, according to Gibson, that indicate that you suffered from emotionally abusive parent(s)/caregiver(s) as a child:

  • Felt unseen or unknown by a parent/caregiver as a child
  • Feel emotional loneliness as an adult
  • Often feel alone as an adult
  • Lost touch with your true self in order to take on a family role as a child
  • Have subconscious fantasies about how other people should act in order for you to heal from past neglect
  • Engage in a lot of self-reflection and personal growth
  • Are highly perceptive and sensitive
  • Tend to feel apologetic for needing help
  • Do most of the emotional work in relationships
  • Think about what other people want first
  • Have an inability or hesitancy to trust your instincts

Safe, Ethical, Professional Therapists for Help with Emotional Incest, Religious Trauma, and Other Mental Health Needs

To get help from secular (i.e., non-religious), evidence-based licensed therapists or mental health clinicians, go to the Secular Therapy Project. As of this writing, you can find vetted therapists in almost every state, Canada, Europe, South America, South Africa, and Australia. And thanks to one of the positives coming from the Covid pandemic, getting much-needed help from qualified professionals is now no longer a geographic or transportation issue. Seeing a licensed therapist virtually who was the best fit for me wasn’t even a possibility when I needed their help the most.

The Secular Therapy Project directory, launched in 2012, was created in response to the difficulty of identifying non-religious therapists. I wish that that resource had been available to me when I first started seeking help for my childhood traumas. What’s the icing on the cake about the Secular Therapy Project is that their team come from religious backgrounds, many of them fundamentalist, so they’re uniquely and acutely aware of how to identify genuinely secular therapists and weed out the covertly religious ones.

According to Dr. Darrel Ray, who founded the project, “secular therapists don’t advertise that they are humanist or atheist because that might alienate the churches and ministers who often make referrals to them. It might also drive off religious clients. Too many people have told me that they simply cannot find a therapist in their community who is not religious. On the other hand, I know that there are thousands of secular therapists, so how do we get these clients together with therapists.”

If you’re questioning religion or have been told that secular equals atheist, get help from a secular therapist, not from a religious organization, program, minister, or counselor. It’s impossible for them to work in your best interest, because their income or business depends on keeping you inside religion.

The chances that you will get the help you need from a secular therapist, especially one who was raised in a fundamentalist or conservative religion and is no longer practicing, are far greater than a therapist who is religious.


Secular therapists don’t have a religious agenda and will give you the opportunity you need to figure out what’s truly best for you.

Watch the Video (coming soon)

Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.

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To education and children’s rights,
Executive Director, Amish Heritage Foundation –
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